SAVES A LIFE
Now, I'm an ex-cigarette smoker myself. (I smoked Belair in the U.S.A., Silk Cut in the U.K. Yes, I know, one is menthol and the other isn't. I can't explain it.) In spite of having quit it was that or my marriage* I don't mind other people smoking, and I do very much mind the busybody mentality behind no-smoking-anywhere bans, so you can count me a pro-smoking non-smoker. To all of like mind I offer the following story, told by the English philosopher Bertrand Russell in his autobiography.
It is hard to miss the note of impish glee with which Russell tells this story. He was in his 70s at the time, and it later emerged that he had swum some distance fully clothed, through icy waters to the rescuers. Russell went on to live into his 98th year in excellent health, and died in his sleep.
YOU IS OR IS YOU AIN'T MUGABE?
I always believed that the Turkish Delight, for which my mother had a particular weakness, actually came from Turkey. The reason I believed this is that it simply did not resemble any other kind of confectionery. It was exotic, packed in a peculiar polygonal box made of thin wood. When opened up, the box revealed irregular cubes of candy all dusted in fine sugar, and giving off a smell something like cheap perfume, a smell that went (I supposed) with things Turkish: Sultans, Pashas, bazaars, seraglios, and so on. The taste and texture were indescribably wonderful. We were filial and respectful children, as children go; but the Turkish Delight box had to be kept on a high shelf out of our reach, if any other family members were to get a share.
Well, this past few weeks I have been reading C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia to my children. A kind reader sent me a beautiful boxed set of all seven books as a new-citizenship gift. The kids didn't take to it at first, the story being too slow moving for their TV-crippled attention spans; but eventually the sheer narrative power hooked them, and now they are addicts.
If you have read the books, you will know that in Volume Two, the White Witch seduces young Edmund into her service by feeding him Turkish Delight. When we reached that part, the kids naturally wanted to know what Turkish Delight was. I told them it is a delicious type of candy found only in England (and presumably Turkey). This excited their curiosity. Undeterred by the example of the wretched Edmund, they wanted to try some. Naturally I refused you should always begin by refusing everything children want, on principle: The sooner they get used to having their desires thwarted and hopes dashed, the sooner they will develop the patience, ingenuity, and stoicism they will need to get around in this world.
On the other hand, they are only little children, with just a few years of innocence and play, of
A little Turkish Delight won't hurt them, given as a reward for some helpful chores. So I went to the English food online shop and ordered some. It duly arrived and was admired, though I note that the box is now mere cardboard. The art of slicing wood up really thin and making boxes out of it has apparently been lost.
Chores were done with tremendous zeal, and Turkish delight was handed out. The kids loved it. Having long since lost my innocence in all worldly matters, I expected that at this point I would be telling you that I found it a great disappointment, nothing to compare with the treasured memories of my childhood. No: Turkish Delight is every bit as exotic and ambrosial as I remembered, and will now be a feature of Derb family Christmases once again.
SAY THE DARNEDEST THINGS
POLITICS IS EVERYTHING
It all reminds me of an engineer I used to know, an Englishman working in China in the 1980s. His job was to help Chinese engineers install his company's products large, complicated pieces of machinery. The strangest thing about the job, he told me, and one that gave him no end of headaches, was this: When a Chinese engineer moved to another job, or retired, he destroyed all his records. There wouldn't be a single work order, blueprint, receipt, or scrap of paper left. Whoever took over his position had to spend weeks trying to figure out what the man had been doing.
The reason was politics, in the sense of "office politics" though this is a blood sport in China. If the project went pear-shaped, someone would have to be blamed. Who better to stick the blame on than the guy who'd just left? If he didn't destroy his records, they'd be combed through in search of incriminating material. If nothing could be found, at least the searchers would have plenty of stuff with his signature on, that they could forge something over.
Now, I was brought up to observe two precepts in this general zone: (1) It is gross bad manners to mock another man's religion, and (2) Your beliefs are nobody's business but your own. On the basis of (1) I don't take kindly to people scoffing at my beliefs, such as they are, and those of you who did so can all go boil your heads. On the basis of (2) I don't go in much for explaining or apologizing for what I believe. I do so, in fact, with the uttermost reluctance. Since so many asked, though, here's as much as I'm willing to say to strangers.
It has always seemed obvious to me that this is not the real world. This is a world of shadows; the real world is somewhere else. I can remember knowing this even as a very small child, and responding intensely, as soon as I could read, to any expressions of it in print. (For example, in Lewis Carroll's Alice books, which are steeped in it.) I can even remember, around age seven or eight, I think, my surprise when I realized that there are people who don't know it. It is the fundamental religious insight, and so far as I can see it is temperamental and congenital: Some people know it, and some, including a lot of very honest and decent people, just don't. It might, of course, be an illusion; but then, as the Empiricist philosophers pointed out, so might anything. I take the universe as I found it when I came in. Since I have been able to make my way through it pretty well, I assume that my understanding of it is not seriously defective.
Because of the accident of having been born in a Christian country and educated by Christians, it is Christianity that gives me a window into the real world. If I had been raised among Hindus, Taoists, Jews, or Muslims, then I suppose it would have been one of those religions that provided the window. A different-shaped window, if you like square instead of oval. These windows are manmade objects, sharing in all the imperfections of humanity. Some of them are a bit dirty; some are long overdue for a coat of paint on the frame; on some can be seen what look suspiciously like bloodstains. The world that they permit us a glimpse of, though, is beautiful, pure, and kind, a realm of perfect bliss. That's why I am always ready to give benefit of the doubt to other religions, while having no intention whatsoever of embracing any of them, or of apologizing for my own.
ought not, without very strong conviction indeed, to desert the religion
in which we have been educated. That is the religion given you, the religion
in which it may be said Providence has placed you..." Mrs. Knowles.
"Must we then go by implicit faith?" Johnson. "Why,
Madam, the greatest part of our knowledge is implicit faith; and as to
religion, have we heard all that a disciple of Confucius, all that a Mahometan,
can say for himself?"
This process is horrible and bloody for a number of reasons. One is that it brings home to you, in an un-ignorable way, your own fallibility. On my first go-through, I noticed that one of my internal references some remark like: "...as I explained in Chapter 7" was wrong. It wasn't Chapter 7 I had explained it in, it was Chapter 5. Alarmed, I went through the entire text, checking all internal references. Half a dozen of them were wrong!***
And then, you start to hate the book. Reading your own material over and over and over again eventually produces an emotion something like disgust. Look, this is a book I wanted to write, on a subject I love, and I wrote it with tender care. Still, going through Chapter 19 for the umpety-umpth time, I find I am seized by the urge to sabotage the text to rearrange the words of a sentence so that their initial letters spell out something rude, or to hint at dark, secret perversions in the life of some blameless Victorian mathematician. I think I've mistaken my vocation in life. I should have been a hack writer, ghosting "autobiographies" for business tycoons and movie stars, write it and forget it.
* Of course I know
had to say about it. On this, though on very few other matters, I
disagree with Kipling.
Mr. Derbyshire is also an NR contributing editor.